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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

River of Grass: Florida's Environmental Voters

Air Date: Week of October 25, 1996

This year the Everglades is at the center of Florida's politics with a rhetorical battle over an anticipated Everglades clean-up by sugar companies. President Clinton's commitment to tax sugar producers for this effort seems to have the popular edge over Bob Dole's stance of citizen taxation. Sandy Tolan reports on Florida's expected sweet vote for Democrats.

Transcript

CURWOOD: A street band pumps up the jam at a hip-hop bash on Florida's South Miami Beach. Sharply dressed 20-somethings stroll past art deco hotels, cell phones in hand. Are these folks worried about the environment and concerned about the state's treasure, the Everglades? Well, all kinds of Floridians, including the ultra cool, love what they call their river of grass.

MAN: I think about a natural habitat, and I think about endangered species. I like animals.

WOMAN: Snakes, swamp alligators. I guess it's an important part of the ecosystem and it should be protected.

MAN: When you mess you clean, right?

WOMAN: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

MAN: You should responsible for doing the cleaning.

WOMAN: That's right. It's our environment.

MAN: Right? You've got to take care of it.

MAN: The Everglades is one of the, you know, one of the last great spaces that we have. I think we should leave it alone for our children and their children, you know?

MAN: Keep it clean. That's about it.

CURWOOD: This year, the Everglades set the center of Florida politics. There's a fierce battle raging over a statewide referendum to require polluting sugar producers to pay a penny a pound to protect the region. Bill Clinton has pledged his support for Everglades cleanup, and pollsters say that is helping the President run ahead of Bob Dole in Florida. In fact, Mr. Clinton's environmental stance in Florida may give Democrats the chance to win the state for the first time since 1976. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan has our story.

BARLEY: This is the Everglades agricultural area outlined right here in red. And we, as citizens, own the rest of this land. And right now they are using our national park as their sewer system.

TOLAN: She stands before the cameras in a press conference at the edge of the marsh, pointing to a color-coded satellite map. Mary Barley, president of Save Our Everglades, gets ready to lead TV crews on air boats into the glades to document the damage by sugar plantations to the north.

BARLEY: It's time for them to pay for the cleanup of their pollution, so let's go.

MAN: If you look in your briefing kit, you can pick one up now or...

(An engine starts)

TOLAN: Propellers slice through the morning air, and we skim through the place long known as the River of Grass.

(Propellers continue)

TOLAN: It feels like driving through a great meadow, vast, to the horizons. Except that the road is a narrow strip of water with powder-green sawgrass rising on either side, opening at times to still ponds cut by our blades. Here a crocodile pops out of the water. Up there a Great Blue Heron hang glides overhead. Mary Barley sits high in the air boat chair in shades, docksiders, and jeans, hair blown back, the Everglades flashing behind her, cameras rolling. She's carrying on the fight for her late husband George, an environmental crusader killed in a small plane crash last year on his way to an Everglades meeting.

(Propeller continues, then stops)

TOLAN: Now we move deeper in. The glades thicken, a monoculture of cattails narrows our path. The water smells like rotten eggs. Fish and birds are fewer in number.

(The motor stops)

TOLAN: This, says Barley, is an area being killed by the runoff from the phosphorous fertilizer of the big sugar farms.

BARLEY: You saw the water was gin-clear which you were going over, a little algae lying on top, which is good. What's happened here is it's so thick, the nutrients are so heavy, it stops the water flow. It's so think that plant, that animals and the natural plants that used to live here can no longer survive.

FISECHELLI: I'm born and raised here. I've hunted and fished here all my life. And I've seen it go from good to bad. And I want to try to help save it.

TOLAN: An old boat driver steps forward, framed by the thickening cattails behind him. Freddy Fisechelli reaches down to scoop out a glass of funky water.

FISECHELLI: That looks like a lot of decayed matter. [Spills water] It's not normal for the glades. It's not made out of the same stuff. You can smell it. Nothing can live here. You won't find any fish here because there's no oxygen here. If you talk to the scientists says oxygen won't survive where there's cattails. So you have nothing here. You see very little here.

TOLAN: A hundred twenty years ago, a lot of South Florida was nothing but marshes. The Everglades flowed wet and dry with the seasons. Then in 1879 the first ditch went into drain the marshlands around Lake Ocochobee for farm lands. In 1947 the Army Corps of Engineers came in and built canals and levees for flood control. Suddenly, there was a reliable year-round source of water. Big growers, spurred by government price supports, planted sugarcane in the muck. For decades the canals brought the phosphorous runoff from the sugarcane fields right here. Meantime, thousands more acres of glades were being sacrificed for water storage to fuel the South Florida population boom. Now, there are only remnants of healthy Everglades left, but there's a big movement to save what remains. In February, Vice President Gore announced the Administration's support for a huge plan to clean the glades, rework the plumbing of the entire Everglades ecosystem, and go back to a system of more natural flows. It would be one of the largest public works projects ever undertaken, at a cost of at least $3 billion. Save Our Everglades wants the big sugar companies to pay their share of the bill.

BARLEY: If we clean the water and we put some more water back in the system, it's not too late; we can still make a difference here in the Everglades. We can save it.

MAN: How is a penny per pound going to help that?

BARLEY: Penny per pound as a revenue source? We're asking them to pay to clean up their pollution, so taxpayers won't have to. And we're telling our elected officials that we've had enough. The penny a pound will tell them that finally it's their turn now. They have to help us all clean up.

(An animal squeaks. Rustling in the grasses.)

TOLAN: Up north, amidst sugar cane that's high and nearly ready for harvest, fourth generation farmer David Beardsley says he's already paying. A new tax is paying for the construction of marshes to filter out some of the phosphorous runoff. It's working, Beardsley says. More taxes are not necessary.

BEARDSLEY: If we can control the runoff of the phosphorous and that's what we're currently being taxed at, I'm in my third year of an existing tax that's not real easy to pay. That's what we're currently, and that tax program was set up so that we would repay 100% to clean up the runoff from the farming area. Well I'm sorry, but I think that's enough.

TOLAN: Beardsley is one of about 130 growers harvesting nearly half a million acres of cane, or enough to produce about three and a half billion pounds of raw sugar a year. That's nearly a quarter of the sugar consumed in the US. Smaller growers like Beardsley say they're not sure they can hang on if the tax passes. And the industry says there are close to 40,000 people who depend on sugar for a livelihood.

HOWELL: It's the worst thing that could ever happen if they pass the tax.

TOLAN: Adolphus Howell came here in 1959 to cut cane for David Beardsley's father. Now he's a maintenance man at the farm. Standing tall and lanky in his oil-spattered jumpsuit, the Jamaican worries about how he and his boss will get by.

HOWELL: Because, you know, smaller farmers, like where I work, they can't afford a penny tax. Got your money and stand down, now you've got 40,000 people hunting for work. Where they going to go? And this place would be a ghost town, that's what I figure, it would be a ghost town. Be like a hurricane come through here.

TOLAN: No one knows for sure how hard sugar farmers would be hit of the penny a pound referendum goes through. The big sugar companies that mill the cane won't open their books for inspection. But some economists say the industry can survive the referendum just fine. And according to USDA figures, Florida producers average nearly 5 cents a pound profit. That comes out to nearly $130 million a year. The sugar industry carefully projects the image of the threatened small farmer, like David Beardsley and his hired hands. Yet the industry is dominated by 2 big concerns: the Cuban exile Van Huel family and United States Sugar, which together control more than half the sugar produced in Florida.

(Propeller motors)

TOLAN: Up the road in Clewiston, which calls itself the sweetest town in American, Bob Beucker, Vice President of US Sugar, looks hurt when I use the term big sugar to describe his company.

BEUCKER: We really take offense at the label big sugar here. Most people are not in the habit of labeling others in our society. We're an employee-owned company. The average person in this company makes $31,000. We own it.

TOLAN: Beucker says this is an all-out fight to save jobs. He doesn't mention the generations of Caribbean workers who used to cut cane under harsh conditions before automation threw them out of work. He doesn't mention the huge campaign contributions the big sugar companies make to politicians, or the immense political clout the industry has in Washington. Florida sugar companies are spending $7 million on ads in Florida to defeat the penny a pound initiative. Yet Beucker prefers to cast the battle as the little sugar guys, the regular working stiffs against an elite opposition.

BEUCKER: Save Our Everglades was having a fundraiser. It was 2 levels, $1,000 a plate and $500 a plate. And it had printed invitations and elegant outdoor attire. So we asked for permission from the local police to have a dollar a plate hotdog dinner outside the gates of the Fairchild Gardens. And we don't have elegant outdoor attire, frankly, we'd have had overalls.

TOLAN: The fundraiser was canceled and Beucker stepped up his attacks on the elitism of the Save Our Everglades campaign. His favorite target is Paul Tudor Jones, who's bankrolled Save Our Everglades to the tune of at least $4 million.

BEUCKER: He's a commodities trader from Wall Street. He owns a seat on the Sugar Exchange. He says he won't trade sugar any more. He has development interests in Florida and the people that he's aligned with are developers, so I don't know what their motivations are, but it isn't the environment.

TOLAN: Jones says he's motivated by his love of the Everglades and his friendship with the late George Barley, whose wife Mary is president is Save Our Everglades. But when it comes to their environmental record, neither side is pure. In 1989 Paul Tudor Jones had to pay a million dollar fine after his contractor filled in some wetlands in Maryland. And just 5 years ago 8 US Sugar executives pled guilty to felony charges of dumping toxic solvents. That's in addition to their problems with the phosphorous runoff. As the election approaches the fight grows meaner. It's beginning to look like two alligators in a swamp.

JONES: Will you guarantee these people their jobs? You said --

BUECKER: I don't --

JONES: -- you're the ones that are just rolling in money. If you're right there's no risk.

BUECKER: I will guarantee it.

TOLAN: Buecker and Jones tangled recently on Larry King Live, each side accusing the other of being rich.

BUECKER: Now you happen to be a billionaire. You can afford it. Put it in writing. Hire the people if we have to lay them off.

JONES: Yeah --

BUECKER: You can do that. Guarantee it in writing.

JONES: - - Of all the half-truths that he said tonight, and the one thing that I wish he said that was true, was that I was a billionaire. And unfortunately that's not the case. I wish it were the case...

CANE: This is a battle of the elites. This is a battle of the haves, not the have-nots.

TOLAN: I've asked this independent pollster from Florida Voter in Fort Lauderdale for his assessment of the fight between Save Our Everglades and the sugar cane growers. His name, I kid you not, Jim Cane.

CANE: They've spent $14 million between the 2 of them so far. To educate the public about whether this is good or bad for them.

MAN: We're conducting an important political opinion survey on how registered voters feel about certain issues in Broward County...

TOLAN: And what those callers are finding, says Jim Cane, is that most voters in Florida support the penny a pound referendum. Floridians want to do something to help the Everglades.

CANE: The symbol of the Everglades is one of the most loved symbols in all of Florida. It is the most loved symbol. Whether you live in the panhandle or you live down in the Keys, the Everglades is a kind of national flag for us in Florida. So any issue in which it looks like it's going to help improve what some experts believe is a dying Everglades is going to get some automatic support from the populace.

TOLAN: And this in turn is helping President Clinton. A high-profile lover of the Everglades, the President has pledged to back major portions of the re-plumbing of the system. And he's challenged sugar producers to pay their fair share. Although most voters make up their minds on other issues, Jim Cane says the environment is a critical issue for swing voters, who make up 9% of Florida's electorate.

CANE: These people are more motivated by what's happening in the environmental issue than any other issue we've been able to measure. The issue of the environment is driving people to vote for Bill Clinton regardless of their partisan beliefs, regardless of how they feel personally about the 2 candidates. It is the one issue that is making a difference for Bill Clinton in this state, and in my opinion is the major reason why he's leading against Bob Dole in a traditionally Republican state.

(Soft voices in background of poll-takers)

TOLAN: The Everglades issue and environmental values in general are dividing some Republicans. Many who consider themselves strong conservationists.

REED: My father was a magnificent land steward. My mother was a great gardener. They both had an extraordinary sense of ethics, land ethics. You walked gently on this earth. You didn't leave deep footprints. You tried to leave it better than when you found it.

TOLAN: Nathaniel Reed stands at the edge of his estate on Jupiter Island north of Miami, looking across at the wildlife preserve he and his mother helped create. Reed was an Undersecretary of the Interior under Richard Nixon, and like Jim Cane, he says Bill Clinton could be a big winner in the battle over the Everglades.

REED: When the Vice President came to Everglades National Park and made a strong commitment on the Administration's part, when the President came to Coral Gables and met with us as leaders in the environmental movement in Florida, he made every newspaper in the state.

TOLAN: By contrast, Bob Dole has sent mixed signals on sugar and the Everglades, and lately has been silent on the issue.

REED: The Everglades issue is very dear to an awful lot of people's hearts in Florida. But my party is out of step right now, and it's got to get back in step if it's going to become a party that truly represents, I think, the American people.

TOLAN: If the penny a pound referendum passes, the sugar industry will likely play its trump card. A rival amendment the industry sponsored could totally undercut the Save Our Everglades initiative. If both amendments pass, which seems likely, the 2 sides in this Everglades battle will almost surely wind up in court. By that time Bill Clinton may well have pocketed the state's 25 electoral votes and be on his way to a second term in the white house.

(An animal calls in the Everglades)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.

 

 

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